Congressional town hall meetings in the post-Trump era are the media’s latest fascination.
“Republicans face outrage at town halls” read one headline from the Associated Press. “GOP reps face town hall protests” said another from ABC News. Both are representative of the media’s latest obsession and determination: That there is a massive backlash against the GOP for its support of Trump.
Some angry people have been attending town halls hosted by Republican members of Congress. But the vocal anger of hundreds (or maybe low thousands) does not mean there is widespread Trump-instigated pandemonium throughout Republican-held states and congressional districts.
Last week, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, faced an angry crowd at his town hall meeting in the northwestern Arkansas hamlet of Springdale. Some estimates had the crowd attending the event at 1,000 people.
It was indeed a rough crowd. One 7-year-old boy in attendance implored Cotton not to take funding away from PBS Kids to spend on a border wall. Others booed and yelled overused slogans like, “You work for us!”
The left-leaning cable news networks loved it. They went live to the town hall with screeching chyrons: “LIVE: ANGRY VOTERS ERUPT AT REPUBLICAN TOWN HALL.”
This headline, however, is hardly a reflection of the political climate in Republican precincts. Cotton won Arkansas in 2014 by a 17-point margin over an incumbent Democrat. He is in no danger of losing his United States Senate seat in 2020. Further, Arkansas has been trending Republican the last several election cycles.
So what is the media’s aim? Democrats cannot beat Cotton at the ballot box. As of now, it would be a frivolous and laughable effort.
It is all about the optics, with the goal of putting as much doubt about Trump’s popularity as possible in the minds of Republican lawmakers and implicitly will them to obstruct the administration’s agenda.
Forty-five miles to Mobile’s east is Florida’s first congressional district, now held by freshman Rep. Matt Gaetz. Last Thursday, Gaetz faced a similar situation at the spree of town halls he held. At each event, protesters greeted him with their homemade signs, jeering and chanting, “Your last term, your last term.”
In all, Gaetz held five events in one day. Protesters met him at every stop.
The problem was, after the first couple of stops, it became clear it was the same group of protesters following him around. At times it might have topped 100 individuals with their signs demanding Obamacare be preserved, questioning whether Gaetz thought Trump should release his tax returns, or chants of “EPA, EPA,” objecting to Gaetz’s effort to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency.
But also similar to Tom Cotton, Gaetz won his congressional race with 69 percent of the vote. A Democrat has not held that seat since Earl Hutto retired and Joe Scarborough won the seat in the 1994 Republican revolution election.
There is not a natural groundswell of Republican opposition due to Trump’s election. Rather, liberal activists are playing to the cameras to create a perception of widespread disapproval.
That is not to say these people at the town halls protesting are paid actors. Most are sincere in their beliefs. Those behind the organizational efforts are likely paid, but most are activists that have an emotional response to our current politics.
Let’s face it: If you are a dedicated liberal activist, it has been a pretty rough year. You likely loved Bernie Sanders. You had five different Bernie stickers on your late-model Honda Accord. You went to rallies. You might have even donated some money.
But you wound up getting Hillary Clinton. On Election Day, even if you lived in a state that had no chance of going blue, you went and you pulled the lever for Clinton.
Then later that night, the unthinkable happened.
The Cheetos-colored vulgarian from Queens won the election. How could that possibly happen? Everyone on the news said there was no chance Trump could be elected. There has to be something else at play! The alt-right? The Russians?
And the emotional response builds off of that. Next thing you know, you’re chasing a backbencher member of Congress around his district demanding he hold Trump accountable.
That is largely what is behind the frenzy you see on TV at these town halls — a sincere yet extremely active vocal minority and their collective visceral reaction to Trump.
Some conservatives engaged in this behavior immediately following former President Barack Obama’s election. If you go back and trace the whole Tea Party phenomenon, it had its first big moment on Tax Day, April 15, 2009. Later there were some very boisterous town hall meetings, especially for Democrats in swing states.
The cameras were there as well, but not to create the perception there was righteous outrage at Obama. Instead, it was to make us think the unhinged right — motivated by racist tendencies against the first black president — were misbehaving.
On Monday, March 6, at 5:30 p.m., Rep. Bradley Byrne will be hosting a town hall meeting at the Via Health, Fitness and Enrichment Center on Dauphin Street in midtown Mobile. It is a certainty that those people who were upset by Trump’s election will be there to make their voices heard.
If you go, look around and take note of the most vocal people in the room. They will probably be a majority of the attendees.
Compare what you might see at that event to what you know about Mobile and what you have seen and heard with your eyes away from the televisions and national headlines of the newspaper.
Then you will realize what this is really all about.
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